SI Vault
Clive Gammon
June 27, 1988
To some fans, the European soccer championships were just an excuse for violence
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June 27, 1988

Those Thugs Again

To some fans, the European soccer championships were just an excuse for violence

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The streets were full of violence, just as I had been warned. But my first moment of acute personal fear came when I thought I was home free, when, late at night, I hopped a local train that could take me out of the craziness of Düsseldorf to Cologne and back to the safety of my hotel room in half an hour.

The train was full of Germans, happy Germans. Their national soccer team had just beaten Denmark 2-0 in Gelsenkirchen. And it seemed a good journalistic ploy—if not a self-defensive one—to temper my native Welsh accent and affect the ignorance of soccer common in my adopted country, the U.S.

"What is all the trouble in Düsseldorf about?" I asked a man sitting opposite me on the train.

The man, about 40, smiled pleasantly and said in precise English, "Why don't you——off, you——American Jew. And send us your sister if you've got a pretty one." He had five friends with him, staring hard. I moved fast into the next car, got off at the next stop and took a cab to Cologne.

Willkommen to West Germany, as they say, to the finals of the quadrennial European Football (soccer, to Americans) Championships, a two-week, eight-team affair spread over several cities. And welcome also to the dark world of the soccer hooligan, who is now to be found in virtually every country in Western Europe. His behavior goes far beyond what would be tolerated in any sporting arena in the U.S.

On the morning of June 14 it seemed as if the English, and the English only, had occupied Düsseldorf, though no trouble had yet broken out. But the potential was surely there. It had been three years since English fans had had a team to follow to a major event on the Continent. On May 29, 1985, hooligan fans of the Liverpool club clashed with Italian fans of the Juventus club in Heysel Stadium in Brussels. During the rioting a wall gave way and 39 people were killed. Since then, English club teams have been banned by the European Football Union from playing on the Continent. This month's visit by the national team, to which the ban does not apply, was a rare opportunity for English fans to mix it up with European soccer supporters since the mayhem in Belgium. At the Hauptbahnhof, Düsseldorf's main train station, there were the usual rows of kids passed out or sleeping rough, wrapped in the Union Jack or wearing T-shirts with aggressive slogans: THESE COLOURS DON'T RUN and ENGLAND INVASION OF GERMANY 1988. One said, simply, RAGE.

Soon the spacious Konrad-Adenauer-Platz outside the station began filling up with British fans. From the jammed Schlosser Alt Bahnhof bar across from the station came sporadic, obscene singing in English, punctuated by the smashing of glass. The other dominant sound was a distant howling of police cruiser sirens. The atmosphere was building like a thunderhead in Kansas.

The West German police knew that there would be trouble at these finals, and they had prepared well for it. "We have computer information on practically every one of the 883,000 people expected for the championship," boasted one senior officer. Before the games began, a rehearsal had been staged in the Olympic Stadium in Munich in which 100 German policemen, dressed as British hooligans and yelling slogans in somewhat guttural English, were charged by 250 baton-swinging riot cops backed up by police dogs and mounted officers.

The June 15 match between England and the Netherlands was expected to touch off the worst violence. No other country has fans who are as mad and bad as England's hooligans (the English call them yobboes or yobs, which is backward slang for boy), but some of Holland's and West Germany's fans come close with their neo-Nazi overtones. Holland's hooligans chant anti-Semitic slogans. West German rowdies tend to shave their heads and wear the Maltese cross of the German navy, a substitute for the forbidden swastika.

At an earlier game, on June 12 in Stuttgart, between England and Ireland, the score for arrests had been England 89, Germany 10 and Ireland 6. More remarkable was the 1-0 win for the underdog Irish. But the real oddity was that after the game, in the Stuttgart railroad concourse, English and Irish hooligans fought side by side when they were attacked by some 200 German skinheads equipped with canisters of CS gas (Mace).

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